Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Night Watch, and the semiotics of pornography.

I watched The Night Watch the other night. It was an adaptation and condensation of the meaty, thoughtful and rather entertaining novel by Sarah Waters.

Now, Sarah Waters doesn’t only write about lesbians in the olden days, any more than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle only wrote about Sherlock Holmes. Nevertheless If you asked the average chap in the street what Sarah Waters was all about he’d more than likely say ‘vintage lesbotica’.

Unless he was the easily-confused sort of chap who was always mixing Sarah Waters up with Virginia Water and ended up telling you how lovely it was when he had a fortnight in the Lake District with his ex-wife.

Even though it rained a lot.

It didn’t rain much in the wartime London of The Night Watch. That was about the only bit of good luck that the characters had though.

War is thought of, predominantly, as a manly pursuit. The Second World War however, more than any of its predecessors, was an equal opportunities upheaval.

Women died in bombing raids as readily as men. But many found new purpose and liberation in the work of keeping their country running while men sought out new places in which to kill and be killed.

Sarah Waters evoked this mixture of tragedy and triumph by tracing the loosely connected stories of a group of young women in 1940s London.

Because she’s a proper brainy author she traced the story in reverse, starting in the colourlessly Orwellian austerity of 1947 and then leaping backwards to pivotal moments that shaped the characters’ lives.

The TV adaptation aped this tricksy structure, with captions that carefully explained ‘Three years earlier, 1944’.

I’m not sure whether the information was duplicated because the producers don’t think their audience can do simple subtraction, or whether they expected at least 50% of viewers to be ankle-deep in their own drool at the thought of LESBIANS and therefore unable to do basic mental arithmetic.

Television loves lesbians. They’re sexy, but they don’t have penises.

Men love lesbians. They’re sexy, but they don’t have penises. We can watch them 'at it' on the television without fear of glimpsing another gentleman's "gentleman's gentleman".

Women seem, as far as I can tell, not to be too bothered about lesbians. Unless they actually are lesbians.

Most British men, most British straight men anyway, are quite afraid of being thought of as being homosexual. Our culture and language still contain a rich seam of homophobia that may, for all I know, never entirely disappear.

We tend to come out with excuses such as “Oh I just can’t bear to see two men kissing, I’m afraid that their stubble will Velcro together and they’ll be stuck like that forever like a badly thought-out Human Centipede”.

What we’re really saying is “I live in terror of anyone thinking I might like this. I live in terror of catching myself enjoying this”.

For all the advances on equal rights for women that have been made since the sociological tumult of the Second World War, men still make a lot of the rules.

One of the rules, that I’m willing to bet was made by a man, was ‘you can’t show an erect penis on TV’.

Actually, it’s rare that you’ll see one anywhere. Even if you look on the internet for proper pornography you’re more likely to see some eager-to-please porn performer thumbing in a slacky than you are to see one of those great priapic coathooks of desire that we all wistfully remember from our teens.

As a consequence when the straight couple in The Night Watch had sex, they did so wearing elegant silken underthings that seemed not to impede the transmission of sperm one iota.

The two gay men in the story didn’t really have any sex at all. Just a botched suicide pact and some sighing.

By contrast two women in the all-female love triangle at the centre of the story got busy with the Imperial Leather more or less from the outset with some uplifting soapy boob action.

Later, Proper Actress Anna Maxwell Martin made up for the distressing lack of hyphens in her name by popping her kit off and wandering around with her furbelow out, just so that we were clear she was a lady and in the nude and everything.

Maxwell Martin’s character wasn’t just a naked lady who was about to do kissing with another naked lady for the edification of a television audience though. The character she played, Kay, was the lynchpin of the while thing.

Kay swished around in coats of an extraordinary beauty that we haven’t seen since Anna Maxwell Martin swished around  in South Riding. She displayed sass, grit and verve as an ambulance driver in Blitz-ravaged London, and she showed us that she was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder via the classic medium of cutting her own hair.

Meanwhile, the consequence of that straight couple’s coupling was a traumatic backstreet abortion for Viv (played by Jodie Whittaker) that underlined how marginal and irrelevant men are in The Night Watch. Later (earlier) she becomes the elegantly-suited principal of an introduction agency. Men freshly returned from war demand from her wives fit for heroes. One way or another, you know they’ll be disappointed.

This is the fourth, and I’d suggest the least successful of the Sarah Waters adaptations to reach our screens.

Not only because the size of budget left us looking at a burning London that looked less convincing than most modern videogames. Although that was a bit distracting.

Not only because the feeble moustaches and quasi time travel element kept making me think of Goodnight Sweetheart.

My principal complaint is that the book was cruelly filleted to squeeze into one 90 minute drama.

Sarah Waters isn’t a highly-rated and popular author because she writes fruity stories about ladies rummaging around in one another’s drawers. Although I'm sure that helps.

Sarah Waters is a highly-rated and popular author because she writes complex characters that seem more real than the person sitting next to us on the train and shoving their paper in front of our Kindle.

Reducing the story to some lovely clothes and a couple of soapy sex scenes did the book, and the audience, few favours.

Still. Kicks the bejesus out of 'Goodnight Sweetheart'.

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